Monday, September 08, 2014

Evolved Morality

In an excellent essay over at Unz (via Vox*), Fred Reed challenges John Derbyshire on evolution:

(2) Morality. In evolution as I understand it, there are no absolute moral values: Morals evolved as traits allowing social cooperation, conducing to the survival of the group and therefore to the production of more surviving children. The philosophical case for this absence of absolutes usually consists in pointing out that in various societies everything currently regarded as immoral has been accepted as acceptable (e.g., burning heretics to death).

I cannot refute the argument. However, I thnk it intellectually disreputable to posit premises and then not accept their consequences.

Question: Why should I not indulge my hobby of torturing to death the severely genetically retarded? This would seem beneficial. We certainly don’t want them to reproduce, they use resources better invested in healthy children, and it makes no evolutionary difference whether they die quietly or screaming.

I can speak for neither Derbyshire or atheism, but I would think the short answer would be: because if you indulged such a hobby, you would be executed. And avoiding execution is rational behavior, reproductively speaking.

But this isn't what Fred means, and in fact the problem of morality is one that Fred, as a self-described "thoroughgoing agnostic" must himself wrestle with. Fred is asking Darwinists to justify such prohibitions in terms of group survival.

A self-aware Darwinist ought to reply that humanity didn't really evolve to believe in Darwinism or apply it consistently. The moral modalities that we did evolve cause us to be sentimental about even genetically defective offspring, and that the cost of overcoming such sentimentality is too steep for Fred's hobby to justify.

* It is most unfortunate that Vox Day is now required to share half his name with Ezra Klein's lame-assed website.

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